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Submit a Manuscript to the Journal

Nordic Journal of Studies in Educational Policy

For a Special Issue on

When schools face the improvement imperative: Practices, effects and tensions of autonomy with accountability policies in education

Abstract deadline
30 April 2023

Manuscript deadline
30 September 2023

Cover image - Nordic Journal of Studies in Educational Policy

Special Issue Editor(s)

Antoni Verger, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
[email protected]

Marjolein Camphuijsen, Vrije Universiteit
[email protected]

Marcel Pagès, Universitat de Girona
[email protected]

Lluís Parcerisa, Universitat de Barcelona
[email protected]

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When schools face the improvement imperative: Practices, effects and tensions of autonomy with accountability policies in education

Long periods of policy stability are rare in the educational sector. Education reforms are continuously debated and adopted to adapt educational systems to changing economic, societal, and technological demands. School autonomy and accountability have become two central pillars in contemporary education reforms since they provide governments with a coherent narrative of how educational systems can effectively respond to external demands and strengthen their effectiveness. As a governance reform, school autonomy with accountability (SAWA) places emphasis on reinforcing schools’ capacity to make decisions in different domains, while also holding schools accountable for their results. SAWA policies incentivize schools to adapt their educational practices to students’ needs, local realities and school philosophy; however, as a counterpart, schools are subject to stricter monitoring and assessment. Accountability thus counterweights the higher autonomy levels provided to schools, although the autonomy-accountability relationship also works in the other direction, as it is assumed that accountability pressure can only lead to improvement if schools have enough room for maneuver to make key decisions on pedagogical, managerial, and/or organizational matters. Indeed, SAWA regimes raise school actors’ awareness of their results and encourage them to react to performance data in different ways - for instance, by using data to inform instructional improvement or to assess teachers’ work. Overall, within this policy model, schools become independent managerial units that enter performance assessment, data use, innovation, and improvement cycles through contractual relationships with public authorities.

Over the last two decades, countries from diverse regions with different public administrative traditions and varying degrees of economic development have embraced SAWA policies in education. Nonetheless, regardless of high policy expectations, existing research reports inconclusive and contradictory findings regarding policy implementation and outcomes. Several studies highlight that SAWA policies can have positive effects on learning outcomes (Patrinos et al., 2015), the alignment of schools’ education with learning standards (Mintrop & Trujillo 2007), and the promotion of organizational changes that may foster pedagogical innovation (Greany, 2018). Other studies, on the contrary, pay more attention to how these policies can trigger undesired side-effects of a different nature (Werler & Færevaag, 2017). Especially when performance pressures are significant, SAWA is conducive to the intensification of teacher- and test-centered pedagogies and the adoption of non-inclusive educational practices, and can diminish teachers’ pedagogical autonomy (Au, 2011; Brass & Holloway, 2019). Nonetheless, an important part of the existing studies agrees when considering that SAWA effects are highly contingent and non-generalizable (Hanushek et al., 2013; Ko et al., 2016; Buerger et al., 2023)

Most existing research on the implementation of SAWA has been conducted in Anglo-American countries, where these policies tend to generate high levels of performance pressure on schools and interact with the dynamics of marketization and school choice in complex ways (Keddie 2014, Sahlberg, 2006). In these countries, forms of open and subtle resistance to SAWA and, in particular, to performance-based governance instruments, have been well documented (Hardy, 2015; Williams & Tolbert, 2021). Nonetheless, less is known about other SAWA configurations in countries where educational systems are organized differently, for instance, in countries with a more bureaucratic administrative tradition and/or a more equity-oriented public administration –and about the dynamics and outcomes produced in the context of these different regimes. Furthermore, there is a limited understanding of how and under what circumstances teachers and principals use performance data, including the results of standardized tests, to promote processes of school improvement, or under what conditions they can take advantage of school autonomy policy to enhance pedagogic innovation.

With this special issue, we aim to develop a better understanding of how SAWA reforms work under different conditions and analyze their effects on different organizational and pedagogical dimensions. This special issue also wishes to draw attention to the concrete instrumentation and (re)tooling dynamics of the SAWA model, which is an emerging research topic. Countries are constantly revisiting their school governance policies in an attempt to connect to ongoing innovations in school management and assessments, but also to address the increasing criticism triggered by the most controversial SAWA instruments. Student growth measures, school rankings, value-added models, and pay for performance are contentious instruments that are not included in all SAWA regimes. Some educational systems emphasize school autonomy at the assessment, curriculum, and pedagogy levels, whereas others highlight the importance of autonomy in staff selection and management, budgeting, students’ admission and funding acquisition. Finally, assessment has evolved from a focus on learning outcomes towards more complex systems, where other aspects of the education production process are also included through instruments such as class observation, e-portfolios, teachers’ self-appraisal, peer evaluation, and student and parent surveys. In this special issue, we are interested in understanding SAWA as a live and constantly evolving policy model, as well as the reasons behind this continuous transformation, including the role of political contingencies, feedback loops, and instrument constituencies.

The final area of inquiry that deserves further research and that we wish to draw attention to in this special issue is related to the inherent tensions and paradoxes that SAWA policies can generate in educational systems, and how these tensions are lived and negotiated at different governance levels. Beyond performance and effectiveness, in the context of ongoing reforms, equity, inclusion, and innovation tend to be part of reform intentions too. However, these goals do not always fit comfortably with high-performance improvement expectations placed in schools. Overall, by simultaneously combining apparently contradictory ideas such as innovation and standardization, excellence and equity, autonomy and control, networks and competition, well-being and effectiveness, etc., the SAWA mandate may generate important tensions among policy implementers and enactors. Schools may process these tensions differently according to their material conditions, educational capacities, and organizational culture. In this special issue, we are thus interested in empirical accounts of how school actors process and negotiate overlapping policy prerogatives and societal expectations, and with what outcomes.

In summary, the main purpose of this special issue is to examine diverse SAWA configurations and compile empirical accounts on the interaction between these policies and schools’ logics of improvement, educational practices, and data use in countries with different educational governance approaches. This special issue aims to address the following lines of inquiry and emphasis:

  • Varieties of SAWA. How do political contingencies, public administration traditions, and professional teacher regimes intervene in the public regulation of SAWA and its trajectory over time? Reception, endorsement, and resistance to SAWA by key stakeholders; emergence of instrument constituencies; and recalibration, accommodation and change of SAWA instruments.
  • Trade-offs and tensions. Identification of different types of trade-offs, paradoxes, and tensions generated by SAWA policies within the educational realm. How do school actors experience, negotiate and adapt their educational and organizational practices to the different prerogatives that derive from contemporary educational reform.
  • Expected and delivered outcomes. How are educational improvement and innovation understood and enacted in the context of different SAWA reforms? What are the organizational and educational practices adopted by schools to improve their instruction and results? What factors favor or hinder the use of performance data for instructional improvement? Which types of data do school actors find more meaningful and actionable in their improvement process?
  • Contextual mediations. How do different professional settings, policy environments and school contexts influence the way schools engage with the SAWA mandate?

Submission Instructions

We focus on ISCED 1 and 2 educational levels, but we also consider papers analyzing how similar policies are being adopted and enacted in early childhood or upper secondary education, including vocational training institutions.


  • Proposal/abstract submission deadline: 30th April 2023
  • Full manuscript submission deadline (submission via journal's peer-review system): 30th September 2023
  • Anticipated publication date: March 2024


Practical information for abstract submission (April 30):

  • Extension: 400 words (references excluded)
  • Content: the abstract should highlight novel features and refer to the methodological approach and the article’s main contribution
  • Use the form for submission

Instructions for AuthorsSubmit an Article

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